Chabad representatives Rabbi Benyamin and Fruma Ita Wolff have been flexing their linguistic muscles for three years now, adapting programs to suit the multi-national Jewish community in Helsinki, Finland. Most of the Seder with Chabad will be conducted in English, but the sixty or so guests of Finland’s polyglot Jewish community will all feel at home as they hear Finnish, Russian, Hebrew and English around the Seder table.
Fruma Ita attends Finnish language school twice a week, and her fluency in the umlaut-laden language is apparent as she switches between phones in the Wolff’s Helsinki home that buzzes with activity. During her chat with Lubavitch.com that interrupts her Passover preparations, Fruma Ita answers a Russian father’s inquiry about summer camp for his son, and flips to Hebrew for another call.
More than the Wolff’s facility with language, their friendliness is drawing a diverse crowd with families from as far as Turku, a city 2 œ hours from Helsinki, who will be drinking the Seder’s four cups of wine with Chabad of Finland. They’ll be sitting alongside a group of American and Israeli families, drawn to Finland by business opportunities and quality of life.
Chabad is famed for catering Seder dinners for thousands in Katmandu; Bangkok; Luanda, Angola; and other exotic sites – with communal Passover meals being offered in thousands of locations around the world. But the Wolffs say their crowd generally arrives without backpacks. “It’s a very family oriented Seder, with lots of singing and warmth,” says Wolff.
Families play a huge role in Lubavitch of Finland’s programming. Chabad offers a boys teen club, a bat-mitzvah club for girls, mommy and me mothers group, lectures and holiday gatherings.
Given Finland’s remote location, sandwiched between Sweden and northeastern Russia, the Jewish community’s roots are surprisingly deep. According to Chana Sharfstein, who has been leading Jewish tours to Scandinavia and Finland since 1980, Finland’s first Jews were cantonists, Jewish boys conscripted into the army–some as young as seven–for 20 years service in the early 19th century under the Czar. A stated goal of the child draft was to de-Judaize the children. “When the twenty years of conscription in the army had passed, Jewish young men wanted to get as far away as possible from familiar Russia and thus they choose to depart for Finland, the most remote region under Russian control. And here they started a new Jewish community,” Sharfstein explains.
Local legend adds that the cantonist soldiers requested Jewish brides from the motherland. “Even though they were taken away at seven, the Czar was too late. The boys remembered their mother’s words to marry Jewish girls,” she says. As a result, when the Wolffs arrived in 2003, they came upon a community that was already graced with a magnificent onion-domed Jewish Community Center and kosher deli.
To flavor the Seder with a home-made taste, Fruma Ita cooks chicken, soup and all the fix-ins for the Seder meal at her home. The dishes stay hot in the Wolffs’ oven until Seder meal time, when Fruma Ita and several community members dash from the Seder site at a local school down the block to retrieve the dishes for the feast. A shipment from Israel by way of Chabad of Estonia brought handmade matzahs to Finland.
As one of the northernmost Chabad centers, the Wolffs are grateful that Passover arrives in the spring. Being so close to the North Pole means that holidays that fall out in winter and summer begin at extreme times. Winter Shabbat can start at 2 p.m. on Friday afternoon with Shabbat ending at 1 a.m. on Sunday. “Even at that time, it’s not truly dark, but Shabbat is over because another day has begun,” says Wolff. Springtime moderates the sun’s rise and set times, so Passover begins at 8 p.m. making it easier for families here in the land of midnight sun, to celebrate the Festival of Freedom at an elaborate Seder.